In the Christmas issue of “Water Issues“, after a short break, we return to the series Water through the eyeof… We invite you to read an article about the perception of conservation areas as a multi-species network of dependencies and the placement of humans in it from the point of view of an anthropologist. Are today’s environmental problems an expression of a crisis in the social system, based on thinking of nature as a means for unlimited development, getting rich and experiencing pleasure? Is moving away from thinking about the environment through the lens of its market value an opportunity for more effective protection? This and many other intriguing questions are posed to the reader today by anthropologist Małgorzata Kowalska, PhD, of the Institute of Anthropology and Ethnology at the Adam Mickiewicz University.

I am not proposing a return to the Stone Age. My intent is not reactionary, nor even conservative, but simply subversive. It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth. All I am trying to do is to figure out how to put a pig on the tracks.

Ursula K. Le Guin
“A non-Euclidean view of California as a cold place to be,” quoted in: Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins

Last fall, I started a research project in a Natura 2000 conservation area in the Gniezno Lake District. In it, I propose that instead of seeing the area solely as managed by humans, we should imagine it primarily as a multi-species network of relationships that constitute a specific place. I am a social anthropologist, so to natural scientists, my interest in non-human species may initially seem incomprehensible. However, the humanities and social sciences recognize that social relations are not limited to the human world. At the same time, it is increasingly pointed out that environmental and climate challenges require us not so much to come up with new technological solutions, but to rethink the human-environment relationship, that is, the social system that determines our perception and value of the world.

It is in relation to these contemporary trends that I carry out my field research. Their goal is to take a critical look at environmental protection as expert environmental management and to problematize the very understanding of the environment as a passive object in need of “maintenance”(conservation). Contrary to the popular narrative about ecosystem services as a remedy for the difficulties of environmental management and conservation, I believe that it is not in commoditization and valuation of nature that the solution lies. Quite the opposite. In my opinion, the adoption of economic language by naturalists in the discussion of the value of nature only deepens the disconnect between the natural ecosystem and humans – a separation on which the social system of most of the modern world is founded, and which gives humans the illusion of control and superiority over nature.

Humanists used to call this system modernity and link it to the dominance of capitalism as the world economic system. The last century with the top can be called the century of modernization projects, focused on development, progress and economic growth. Meanwhile, in view of increasing environmental degradation, the model based on the idea of continuous development no longer works. Discourses that position humans above nature and thus grant them rights to own, control and use it according to their needs still prevail[1]. However, as British anthropologist Veronica Strang notes, human exploitation or even extraction of resources while simultaneously destroying the environment is proceeding so rapidly that we need fundamental changes – paradigm shifts in our thinking about the relationship between humans and the world around them[2]. As Bruno Latour said, not only have we never been modern: modernity is over[3].

Theoretically, science is increasingly referring to and advocating inter- and transdisciplinary research. In practice, however, it looks different. The system of rewarding research work determines siloism, not dialogue between specialists, not to mention discussion between disciplines. Meanwhile, while narrow specialization fosters recognition and individual academic careers, and can sometimes lead to breakthroughs, we live in the reality of deepening crises that should force us to collaborate and think. Can we continue to produce and consume more and more, and at the same time protect the non-human worlds from advancing extinction? Can we continue to claim that we can control and modify the world’s processes and phenomena, ignoring the fact that we are, on many levels, dependent on the ecosystems in which we live, and of which, de facto, we are a part?

My perspective isn’t utopian – it’s not a romantic proposal to return to the so-called “so-called” “old world. “state of nature,” but an attempt to open the imagination to thinking about the environment other than the market. He points out that a system built on the opposition of nature and culture and the exclusion of the usable relationship of one to the other will not bring solutions to today’s problems. Nor is the solution the demand for sustainable development, which is an oxymoron as long as we remain attached to the idea of economic growth[4]. Rather, we should rethink the anthropocentric narrative of the world for human use and pay attention, if only to how ecological relationships co-create ecosystems of which humans are a dependent part. Knowledge of our dependence on the environment is definitely not widespread today, and continuing to discuss natural resources drawn for human use will definitely not make it so.

Social anthropology observes how people understand and describe the reality in which they live. Social reality, that is, the way we assign certain meanings and values to the world, unlike physical reality, is not natural and therefore objectively measurable. It is only “imagined.” Different social realities have different logics and therefore different value systems. We learn to understand the world through the dominant narratives that describe the world but also produce it; that represent but also determine the world we live in. This claim may seem abstract to some, but it is enough to reflect on the social reality of much of the modern world. The reality of late capitalism organizes and values physical reality. The stories of late capitalism are narratives of development, acquisition and competition for resources, advancing technologization, property rights, individual success, consumption. They form the basis of international law and determine what the modern academy looks like. And it is they who are stimulating work on solutions to the problems of increasing environmental degradation. It is in this context, for example, that the popularity of financial tools or ecosystem services in conservation discussions should be understood. The problem is that these solutions are part of the same repertoire that drives economic growth (and profit for the few) at the expense of dwindling “resources” – potable water, clean air, unpolluted soil, not to mention starry skies and valuable natural ecosystems. What if one were to look at contemporary problems from a different perspective? To see that they are first and foremost a crisis of a social system that has taught us to think of nature as a cheap means for unlimited development, getting rich or experiencing pleasure?

In their arguments, anthropologists are eager to appeal to social systems other than capitalist, and thus to a different understanding of the place and role of humans in the world. This helps demonstrate that our supposed independence, separateness and superiority to the environment is not a natural attitude at all. And if it is not a natural attitude, then perhaps it is worth considering whether it is really still justified to believe that the world consists of elements that exist solely for human use? Maybe it’s worth rethinking our ways of thinking about and relating to the world – and therefore the stories about the world we live in?

My research aims to tell the story of the place in a different way. I depict the protective area around the Rambler Lake in the Gniezno Lake District – a lake whose bottom is overgrown with underwater meadows of macrophytes that form a valuable and protected natural habitat – as a network of multi-species relationships that co-create the place. This map will not be a static picture of habitats and/or the history of anthropogenic pressure, but rather is intended to show the creative, engineering role of non-human species in shaping and preserving the ecosystem and landscape. It aims to show, and thus to imagine the Natura 2000 area as co-created by humans, brachiopods, and biological and geological processes. In this view, the lake, and with it the natural habitats, are not a passive object of protection – they are one of the creators of the social landscape network. In the long run, it also raises questions about the goals of environmental protection: shouldn’t it focus more, as I propose, on building relationships and accountability? Except that it could not then be reduced to the need to educate or even “make” the public aware. Adopting such a perspective would first require answering the question of whether we want to continue to live in a grim social reality imagined around the idea of competition for dwindling resources.

Małgorzata Z. Kowalska works at the Institute of Anthropology and Ethnology of the Adam Mickiewicz University and is currently a visiting researcher at the University of Oulu in Finland as part of the interdisciplinary project Biodiverse Anthropocenes (funded by Academy of Finland PROFI6 funding 2021 – 2026, project number 243037391121). In Poland, he is conducting research in the project Natura 2000 conservation area as a multi-species network of relationships. Non-obvious relationships in anthropological perspective (NCN 2021/43/D/HS3/02018).


In the article, I used, among others. From the works:

[1] Strang, V., “The Gaia Complex. Ethical Challenges to an Anthropocentric ‘Common Future’,” in The Anthropology of Sustainability. Beyond Development and Progress, ed. Marc Brightman and Jerome Lewis, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

[2] Strang, V., “The Gaia Complex. Ethical Challenges to an Anthropocentric ‘Common Future’,” in The Anthropology of Sustainability. Beyond Development and Progress, ed. Marc Brightman and Jerome Lewis, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp. 212.

[3] https://www.arte.tv/en/videos/106738-001-A/interview-with-bruno-latour/

[4] Illich, I., 2009, The shadow our future throws. New Perspectives Quarterly 6 (2), 14-18.

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